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Jennifer Reid and Tom Kitching performing traditional music in the Gallows Pole. She is singing while he is standing behind her left should playing the fiddle.
Jennifer Reid and Tom Kitching performing in The Gallows Pole. Image via Jennifer Reid's website.

Which traditional songs and tunes were used in The Gallows Pole?

As the BBC drama, The Gallows Pole, kicks off, we take a look at some of the old songs - sometimes traditional - that peppered the soundtrack.

The Gallows Pole hit our screens last night, bringing with it a mix of drama, folk horror, traditional music and broadside balladry that seems to chime with the zeitgeist. As the opening credits rolled over headlines from 18th century Yorkshire (“slums fit to burst”, “rents rising again”, “landlords grow rich, “forest to make way for factories”), we were reminded, once again, of the ways in which our present mirrors our past; of the ways in which we make the same mistakes again and again; of the ways in which we refuse to learn.

The headlines gave way to images of stag-headed men driving the protagonist forward through an acid-drenched vision of dusty moorland, replete with standing stones, putting us in mind of the beasts, stone circles, and unknowable rituals that seem to be attracting the folk-curious in their droves. And as the central character, David Hartley, sat with his cousins and recited a story involving sexual misconduct amongst the royals before repeatedly spitting out, “fuck the king”, I thought again about how folk art often coincides with periods of social unrest, and how Shane Meadows might possibly have an agenda here…

But I’ll leave that particular strand of conversation for another time. Our own agenda for the day is to look at the music in The Gallows Pole, and to celebrate two fine performances in particular.

On this page, you’ll find…

What is The Gallows Pole about?

The Gallows Pole was adapted by the BBC from the Benjamin Myers novel of the same name, published in 2017. A bleak but gripping drama set in Cragg Vale, Yorkshire, it is based on the true story of ‘King’ David Hartley and his violent gang of coin clippers as the Industrial Revolution looms and work is dragged from their once-affluent village to nearby Halifax. Poverty has set in, and with it the stench of corruption. Hartley and the Cragg Vale Coiners plot to undermine the economy and perpetrate one of the biggest acts of fraud in British history. And that, dear reader, is all you’re getting. No spoilers here.

Who directed it?

It was directed by Shane Meadows (This is England) from his own adaptation of the novel. Meadows has stated that his version includes a prequel to the original book, explaining that, “I really wanted to delve into the history of this story and the circumstances that lead to an entire West Yorkshire community risking their lives to put food in their children’s bellies.” According to Benjamin Myers, it was filmed in the same locations in which David Hartley and his gang lived and breathed, “so it looks, sounds and smells right.”

Which traditional songs and tunes are used?  

The Gallows Pole makes use of 21st-century music as well as broadside ballads, songs and traditional tunes that may well have been known to the Cragg Vale Coiners in the 18th century. Of the latter, the first episode contains the following.

The Miller of Dee

Episode 1, The Resurrection of Dave, finds Barb (played by Jennifer Reid) at the centre of all things musical. As the forgotten community worries about the immediate fate of David Hartley, Barb sings them a verse of ‘The Miller of Dee’ [Roud 503], with its timely reminder to the villagers that, “I care for nobody, no, not I, if nobody cares for me.”

‘The Miller of Dee’ came to prominence via Love in a Village, a ballad opera written by Thomas Arne and Isaac Bickerstaffe in 1762. As with most songs that found their way into the aural tradition, there are a number of variants in both lyrics and tune. The melody was popular with classical composers – both Ludvig Van Beethoven and Benjamin Britten wrote variations – and there are 263 references to the song housed at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library in Cecil Sharp House.

Old Simon the King

As the congregation returns to Barb’s pub, the landlady calls attention with a song. It’s an odd little curio with a circular melody and lyrics that constitute what you might call a drunk’s philosophy:

For drinking will make a man quaff,
And quaffing will make a man sing;
Singing will make a man laugh,
And laughter long life doth bring.

Or, in another version…

Who so fears every grass
Must never piss in a Meddow,
And he that loves a Pot and a Lass
Must never cry Oh my head, oh!

‘Old Simon the King’ [Roud V7652] appears 13 times in the national collection at Cecil Sharp House, most commonly in ballad operas from the 1730s. In more modern times, versions were recorded by Shirley Collins and the Albion Dance Band, and Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band.

The Saint Turned Sinner

Thought to date to 1690, this ballad is sung by Joseph Broadbent (played by Fine Time Fontayne) as the party reaches a climax. Its full title is ‘The Saint Turn’d Sinner, or the Dissenting Parson’s Text Under the Quaker’s Petticoats’ [Roud V16143] and it is commonly believed to have come from John Bagford’s Bagford Ballads (first printed in 1878, currently housed at the British Library), where it was connected with the tune, ‘A Soldier and a Saylor’. However, the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library notes that it was published a century earlier in Wit and Mirth or Pills to Purge Melancholy (1719-1720).

Included, presumably, to highlight a sense of corruption, the song tells the tale of a parson (“a gospel cushion thumper”) who forces himself on a woman, justifying his actions by pointing out that biblical characters such as Solomon had many wives, and (when that fails) that he was drunk. As he is carted off to prison, the narrator chides:

And thus we see how preachers
That should be gospel teachers,
How they are strangely blinded,
And are so fleshly minded
Like Carnal Men inclined

Barbara Allen

In an effort to calm proceedings, Barb sings the sorrowful lament of ‘Barbara Allen’ [Roud 54], one of the most well-known and commonly sung songs in the English ballad tradition. Searching for this song in the VWML archive returns 1,783 results – all good soundtracks require a hit, and The Gallows Pole proves no exception.

A quick glance at the lengthy mainlynorfolk.info entry demonstrates how attractive the song has been to folk performers. Notable renditions include Simon and Garfunkel, Frank Turner, Norma Waterson and, of course, Martin Carthy, to name a few. Dolly Parton even had a crack at it in 1994 with Irish group, Altan, showing us just how well-travelled it is.

What Will We Do When We’ll Have No Money

As if to underline the zeitgeisty nature of the drama, an early scene in the first episode features the instantly-recognisable Lankum, singing their startling rendition of ‘What Will We Do When We’ll Have No Money’ [Roud 16879]. The song was originally collected from the singer, Mary Delaney, when she recorded it for Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie in County Tipperary at some point in the mid-1970s.

Although the Lankum version is perhaps the best known to younger audiences, the song was previously recorded by The Silly Sisters (it lent its name to their 1988 album title, What Will We Do?), Peta Webb and Ken Hall (2000), and Ben Moss and Laurel Swift (2014).

Traditional party tunes

Shortly after the programme aired, fiddle player, Tom Kitching, published his recollections of filming the scene in Barb’s pub on his Facebook page. “[It] was initially shot as one long take over several hours, with real food and drink, and we were told to get on with it and have a party, which we all did. There were several milestones that had to be passed within this, but otherwise, we were just allowed to do what we wanted. Typically, I stayed at the back on my todd and played my fiddle in between eating pies and sausages, which is how I approach most parties to be honest.

“The next day we did it all again, but zooming in on little moments and conversations, rather than the overview. The room was still full of food, which by this point stank in the heat.”

I dropped Tom a line to ask him about the tunes he fiddled about with in the scene’s background. Stretching his mind beyond those pies and sausages, he remembered that he played ‘The Buffoon’ and ‘Barham Down’. He also recalled that the duo sang ‘Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster’ [Roud V41274], a song that didn’t make it to the final cut.

Who were the musicians in The Gallows Pole?

Grabbing all the attention in Barb’s pub is Jennifer Reid (playing Barb) and Tom Kitching (playing an unnamed fiddler), two musicians known for their work with broadside ballads and traditional folk music.

Jennifer Reid

Jennifer Reid stands in front of a wall of pictures. Her hair is shaved and dyed blonde, with long brown streaks down her back and over her shoulders. She is clutching a yellow coffee cup.

Jennifer, who acted as musical director and selected the ballads for the scene set in Barb’s pub, is a dynamic performer specializing in nineteenth-century Lancashire dialect and Victorian broadside ballads. She strives to revive the provocative musical tradition of the working classes and reconnect people with their geographical heritage. Jennifer’s research, education, and live performances span primary schools to universities, while her contributions to the academic field include funded projects and international speaking engagements. Her work has taken her across the globe, exploring the ongoing impact of the Industrial Revolution and researching weaving songs in Bangladesh. Most recently, Pulp invited Jennifer to open for them at their recent comeback concert in Bridlington Spa, singing solo, unaccompanied Lancastrian ballads. For more info, head to jenniferballads.com

Tom Kitching

Tom Kitching sits on some outdoor steps, playing his fiddle against a grey sky.

Tom is a highly accomplished fiddle player known for his dynamic presence in the English folk scene. His collaborations with renowned artists like Pilgrims’ Way, Gavin Davenport, Jon Loomes, Gren Bartley, Zoe Mulford, and Albireo highlight his expertise. With a strong connection to the dance scene and a remarkable record of over 2000 gigs, Tom’s style is rooted in English traditions while incorporating influences from various cultures, resulting in a vibrant and distinctive sound that combines exuberance, energy, wit, and emotional depth. Notably, his solo album Interloper, released in 2015, delves into the essence of English instrumental tradition. In 2020, he published Seasons of Change, a captivating book and album capturing the essence of England’s streets. Tom’s latest offering, B-Sides, EPs, and Rarities, released in September 2021, chronicles his adventures over the past 18 years. For more information, head to tomkitching.co.uk.

Where can I watch The Gallows Pole?

The Gallows Pole is available to watch now on BBC iPlayer.

What else is in The Gallows Pole soundtrack?

The soundtrack heavily features the music of Goat, the experimental fusion group from Sweden. Other artists include Balmorhea, Wickerbird, Dub Pistols, Lichen, Lewsberg, Nick Mulvey, The Groundhogs and, of course, the aforementioned Lankum.